Speechless

 To render. Be rendered. Awestruck. Awesome.
A magazine of poetry and related arts straight from L.A.


Poets in Progress

Works by Students of Charlotte Innes

Instructor's Statement

I have taught poetry and how to write poetry to high school juniors and seniors for about seven years, first to A.P. and Honors English students at La Cañada High School and currently to creative writing students at Brentwood, a private school on the Westside of Los Angeles. I’ve always had bright, highly motivated students, hungry to sit down and just start writing. Yet, every year, I end with the sense that I have struggled mightily, that I have just walked a tightrope, balancing craft in one hand and a sensitivity to the students’ imaginations in the other.

Why is it so difficult? I recently had a revelation about my dilemma while reading an article by the French poet Yves Bonnefoy (in the Times Literary Supplement) in which he defined poetry as an escape from “conceptual thinking.” Poetry is the intuitive reaching for experience before it is ordered by words into some sort of “text,” he said. “It is poetry’s role to work on words so as to free them from just such entrapments.” The students I teach are close to the end of their high school careers. They are old hands at “conceptual thinking.” What wonderful essays they write! But they come to creative writing in the same mood as Yves Bonnefoy. They want to be free of the “entrapments” of academic prose. That’s when the balancing act begins.

Some students feel that freedom from conceptual thinking simply means writing anything—if they feel it, then it must be true. Quite often they are stuck in another kind of prison, one of generalities and abstractions, with saying “it made me happy,” without describing the specifics of their experiences. Some are so cerebral, they can never let it rip, never take a look inside themselves. Quite a few are afraid of poetry. Some think it too difficult. Others say it’s boring or irrelevant. A number, I suspect, are simply afraid of what they might uncover. Finally, there are the instinctive poets. They come with glorious images. They are drunk with language that has been pent up inside them for years. Somehow, gently, I have to find a way to say to all of them, “your experience is authentic and valid, and here’s how you can do the best work you can with it.” In other words, students need to feel they can write freely, and yet learn to shape their raw words into poetry without being overly intellectual about it.

I always begin by having the students experience the world through their senses. They bring food to class and describe what it tastes like. They go outside and really listen to what they can hear. They close their eyes and describe an object by touch. They experience, period. At the same time, we start reading poetry and poetic prose writing in which writers are also exploring their senses. And so it goes on, from opening up and becoming vulnerable to the world, to issues of craft, slowly moving through the poetry toolbox of line and space, metaphor and symbol, always reading good works by great poets to see what can be done. I’ve also come to focus more and more on sound, on reading aloud, on listening for the music of a line, on the importance of diction and word placement, since it is intensity of language, the very taste of it, that often distinguishes poetry from other kinds of writing.

My teaching methods have mirrored my own journey in writing poetry. I came to poetry fairly recently after years as a journalist. And I’ve moved from a more cerebral approach, that is, getting into the students’ poems with a wrench and screwdriver, to a more intuitive one, listening carefully to what they’re saying and how they’re saying it—to gently nudging rather than shoving them. As I go more deeply into the craft myself, I’ve become lighter on suggestions for my students, making the tools available, but not always guiding their hands as they use them.

Nevertheless, I am firm about the craft of poetry. I want the students to understand that the tools can make them better poets. I’ve almost always found that students strongly resist learning craft because they think that more rules are being foisted on them. I have to take some time explaining or showing them that the tools are there for them to use, not to beat them over the head.

I’ve learned to tap into the students’ playfulness. (I’ve yet to find a student of any age who doesn’t like to play.) Writing iambic pentameter becomes a game. The students compose lines together, foot by foot, on the board. Then they go home and try it for themselves. They like the puzzle aspect and the challenge of sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, or any form, for that matter. I’ve found that restrictions on language (it’s still a game) prompt them to come up with unusual phrases—if, for example, I tell them that every line has to end with a concrete noun. I steal exercises wherever I can find them. One that works really well came from one of Cecilia Woloch’s workshops. The students think of a relative (cousin, mother, aunt), then an object, and write a poem combining the two. One student once wrote a wonderful poem about “my sister, the fire alarm.” For another exercise, I asked the students to pick something they liked and then to write a poem on a dark theme. One girl picked food, and wrote about a hamburger’s drug addition!

I also encourage students to mix genres, that is, to combine poetry with their other artistic passions. A number of students have composed music for their poems, or performed rap in class, or “flow,” a completely spontaneous conversation in rhyme, to guitar accompaniment. Students have made videos for which their poems are the narrative. One student wrote a poem about his friend’s drug addiction and made a DVD to go with it. A few years ago, a girl who was an accomplished artist, performed what I can only call a “poem-in-paint.” Holding up a canvas on which she had painted her poem in multi-colored oils, she recited the poem, which described life’s “beauty and pain,” its “ephemeral happiness” (she happened to have a heart condition), ending, “Without a word/ tell me/ how you feel.” Then, without a word, she took her hand and smeared the words together so that the canvas now looked like a vibrant abstract painting. It was a stunning moment that told us in a flash that pain and pleasure can blur together in unexpected ways.

Finally, since this is my sixth year at Brentwood, students who are not in my class have started to come to me with their poems at lunchtimes and breaks. Of the students below, Calvin was a junior in my class last year; Jane was a 10th grade lunchtime poet; and Diana was a 9th grade poet whose work appeared on the back page of the Flyer, the school’s newspaper (for which I am the advisor) for National Poetry Month. I asked each of the student poets to comment on what draws them to poetry. Their comments appear after their poems.


Calvin Sloan

Midnight Candor

Once sylvan, now nebulous,
Was the road I drove on.
Street lights now streamed,
Lines of formidable direction,
Illuminating the daunting task.

Two minutes prior my phone
Had rung ending my sleep,
Vexing, a serene state of mind.
Drunk slurs, usually disregarded,
I listened too keenly, and cherished.

Glistening blue signs flapped,
Victims of my urgency.
Speed limits and red octagons,
Swayed crestfallen in my wake,
Upset over my negligence.

The words echoed in my ear,
As if the call was still live.
Death by savored poison,
Would be the case,
If the slurs held validity.

My tires did my screaming,
And usurped the position,
Of the silver plated doorbell.
For the entry creaked ajar,
In anticipation of my arrival.

The circle of white faces parted,
Like the curtains to a horror film,
And there, she lay taken,
To the black peace,
Diving into uncharted depths.

Proportions

Luminous petals caress the air,
They sway, rise to eminence.
Each separate, their own entity.

Majestic branches stretch outward,
They offer charity, a safeguard.
Each arm holding their own.

Profound trees pierce the sky,
They endure thin rings, bask the thick.
Each stands alone, ripening wisely.

A forest expands beyond,
It cultivates, a haven of beauty.
Each cell, a part of its entity.

Calvin Sloan says: I like poetry that either leaves me thinking, or my heart pumping. Writing is also very therapeutic at times.

top


Jane Rosenthal

 

Silly Girl

stop here
among thorns and browning petals
you tell me it is so much better

than what i suggested.
i believe you,
and i am preparing
black and white,
maybe yellow

you were there when we watched lenny
pound the keys with his feet
i say how beautiful that is
that is ridiculous you say,

that you are scared of,
that will kill you.

eventually

wonderful.
i am preparing for this too,
something twisted

Untitled

ripe fruit will soon rot
grey and green
then fall
purple and black
disappear too quickly
the spaces heal
so will the heart
selfish thoughts materialize
black and white
soon to dissipate
dark curls will recede
gentle lids will close
deep eyes sink
a boyish mouth turned down
flesh will drop away
olive and sun kissed
white bone and a hole for the nose
ceasing to be crooked
like the scar that once rested along a knee
like the twisted right ankle
but broken parts remain warped

Jane Rosenthal says: I’m 16. When I first started listening to David Bowie I never thought of the rock and roll aspect, it was the words he used that haunted me, images he painted, and his desperation to express. Then came Jimmy Morrison with his temptation and ethereal view of the world. And then came Sylvia. Ms. Sylvia Plath with her prose, cynicism, appropriate dollop of self-deprecation, and of course her fascinating and inevitable slip into death.  From there I fell in love with Billy Collins, his accessibility, and Mary Oliver for her delight in nature.  Now I'm really into a newer poet Dana Goodyear and continuing to discover...

top


Diana Stern

Just the Answer to the Riddle

 Tibetan monks express
their regret
through perfectly
scrambled words,
their low guttural voices
form a wave
of smooth singularity,
crossing the boundaries
of Western normality

Hypnotized
by the methodic rhythm,
I cannot peel off,
stuck
to this ancient sound,
digging deeper
into it,
almost through it,
I am floating on the bottom

I can see them now,
shaved heads
reflecting one another,
unsewn orange cloth
loosely embracing
their bodies,
eyes barely closed,
lost in the chant,
but so much more found
than I

My brain forces itself
to think,
What is there for a monk
to regret?
Something so simplistic,
it is beyond me.
an answer to the riddle.
Just the answer.

I can’t figure out what
is already figured

Taken for Granted

when deprivation
burns life
boiling it down

to ashy breaths
brittle heartbeats

an emotion
is a blessing

Diana Stern says: I’m 15 right now. Writing poetry is just something I naturally do. It’s my automatic response to emotion, thought, sometimes even boredom, anything really. Ever since poetry was introduced to me in elementary school, I’ve loved it. I like Edgar Allen Poe and Pablo Neruda. I can’t say that there’s a specific poet that’s influenced me, though.

Charlotte Innes teaches creative writing and journalism at Brentwood School, Los Angeles. She is a freelance journalist and poet who recently published in The Hudson Review (Spring 2005). She also won a first prize in the Poetry in the Windows V contest (2003). She writes about books and writers for various newspapers and periodicals including the Los Angeles Times and The Nation.


top


Speechless Spring 2007
Copyright © 2007 Published by
Tebot Bach